Author: Graham Brennan, transport and ocean R&D programme manager, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland In part one of this two-part article, we examined the engineering effort required to develop a successful wave energy converter (WEC) device. Now we will consider, from the perspective of a developer or investor, the type of commercial environment needed in order for a wave-energy industry to flourish here in Ireland. An energy utility company is in the business of making profit from electricity sales and will choose the most cost-effective technologies to invest in. Following a long period of development and a gradually increasing price of oil, wind power finally made a commercial breakthrough in the 1990s. The cost of electricity delivered from a combined cycle, gas-turbine power station based on current gas prices is about 6 cent per unit (i.e. kWh) of electricity produced. Similarly, the cost of electricity from a wind farm in Ireland today is expected to be 7 cent/kWh. Any differences in price are subsidised via a feed-in tariff which is paid for by all electricity consumers. [login type="readmore"] A WEC manufacturer wishing to succeed today, without major subsidies in place, would need to sell devices capable of producing electricity within this price range. The goal of the designer is therefore to minimise the capital costs and maintenance costs, while maximising the energy efficiency and reliability of any potential device. The obvious reaction may be to aim to develop the offshore sites with the highest wave energy levels and therefore maximise electrical output. However, for the first sites to be of commercial significance, a couple of important factors should also be considered.

  • Firstly, new technologies are generally less reliable than mature ones and are therefore more prone to failures. Regions of extreme waves far from shore will reduce the all important weather window required by an operator to access and service their wave farm. For significant failures, operators may be required to tow a device to a sheltered area with access to significant onshore engineering facilities for quick and safe repairs to be made.
  • Secondly, developers will want to select zones with growth potential, which means easy access to an electricity grid with sufficient capacity to accommodate future MW output from wave farm arrays.
  • Thirdly, WEC technology suppliers are anxious to produce sales and grow as businesses. Given that the early market will be subsidised by state support, it is most important that they can offer a device which will operate with the highest reliability possible. They may therefore favour less extreme wave climates in order to encourage future sales and success.
SCOTTISH MODEL [caption id="attachment_9350" align="alignright" width="939"] Ireland’s average annual wave-power resource (kW/m)[/caption] Scotland has set aggressive targets for renewable electricity supply by 2020 and wishes to have wave and tidal energy as major contributors. They have identified sites around Orkney with potential to generate 1050MW of wave and tidal power. Mixtures of utilities and technology developers have bid for leases on these sites from the Crown Estate. Orkney is interconnected to the mainland via a 16km underwater cable which does not offer much capacity for electricity export at present. However, plans are being considered to build a new 132kV AC connector capable of exporting 200MW of power by 2016. For export beyond this amount, an approximately 180km DC connector down the coast to Peterhead could be required by 2021. While being relatively remote from industrial or population centres, the existence of the decommissioned Dounreay nuclear reactor site on the mainland provides access to a long transmission line linking south and east to cities such as Aberdeen which lies approximately 400km away by land. In order to promote the development of the market, the UK Government currently offers five Renewable Obligation Certificates for every MWh of wave generate electricity delivered from wave farms not exceeding 30MW until 2017. When added to the basic price of electricity, the electricity price available to wave is equivalent to 30 cent/kWh, which is one of the most favourable tariffs on offer to developers at present. In Ireland, however, there is currently no tariff available for wave or tidal developments which will clearly need to be revised in order to stimulate development here. If we wish to develop Ireland’s wave potential, it is important that we identify a wave-energy zone which offers the best commercial prospects for these early WEC systems and focus our resources on preparing it for commercial use. To illustrate the earlier discussion of the requirements for a commercial WEC development, let us consider as an example the region of the west coast of Co Clare. While not as powerful as Belmullet, it still has excellent wave resources within reasonable water depths with expansion potential to the west. It offers the shelter of Shannon estuary with the necessary port and heavy engineering facilities available at Foynes Port. Co Clare itself has not had significant wind-farm development and there is a 38kV distribution line available immediately onshore. There is significant energy infrastructure already in the region including the Moneypoint and Tarbert Power Stations together with the future Shannon LNG Gas Terminal. This means there is significant electrical infrastructure available to support future wave-farm power output. A large city, such as Limerick, is easily accessible and offers ready access to a skilled workforce that could support the development of a wave industry in the region. It is worth therefore considering the development of a commercial wave energy zone, in consultation with the local community, with sufficient size to meet Ireland’s medium- to long-term targets. A lease could be prepared for an offshore site with corresponding investment in onshore grid connection infrastructure thereby reducing the scale of investment required by prospective developers. CAPITAL FOREIGN INVESTMENT [caption id="attachment_9352" align="alignright" width="8000"] Spring-tether system designed to reduce mooring forces developed by Technology From Ideas[/caption] By offering conditional access to this pre-prepared zone with an appropriate level feed-in tariff, Ireland could attract the capital foreign investment required to build the wave farms which will supply our future energy needs. In terms of current activity in the region, it is worth noting that ESB’s Westwave project to establish 5MW of wave power and separately, Australian-based company Carnegie Wave Energy (via CETO Wave Energy Ireland Ltd), are preparing to perform site investigations in the west of Clare coastal region. Access to the energy resource is not the only long-term benefit to Ireland. Industrial opportunities also exist for pioneering companies with support from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) and Enterprise Ireland. Ireland has witnessed the successful development of the Open Hydro tidal energy company which is currently valued in the region of €160 million with a manufacturing facility in Co Louth. Ocean Energy Buoy Ltd has developed a WEC that has graduated successfully from tank testing in University College Cork (UCC) through to Galway Bay and is currently preparing plans for a full scale grid-connected demonstration in 2014. Technology from Ideas is an Irish company that is developing a unique polymer spring-tether system, which is expected to reduce mooring forces on devices and therefore substantially reduce the cost of mooring systems for wave farms. In these challenging times for Ireland, the Government recognises the opportunities which wave power offers to this island. Over the recent years, through investment in third-level research and the creation of the Beaufort Research Centre, Ireland has established itself as one of the leading contributors in the field of ocean energy research. UCC has assisted the development process greatly by helping to formalise protocols for testing WECs and have been heavily involved by providing independent testing of many of the world’s leading ocean energy technologies. The Electro Technical Council of Ireland is playing a leading role in the development of International Electrotechnical Commission standards, which is a vital step towards the commercialisation of wave-energy technology. With the emergence of standards will come more certainty for insurers and key investors such as utilities and banks. The scale of wave-energy resources available to Ireland means that it cannot go undeveloped and that we must take a lead in promoting the development and commercialisation of the technology. It is an area that attracts many inventors and researchers. Over the years, procedures for helping entrepreneurs with their ideas have been of tremendous benefit in assessing the prospects for technologies. Ireland’s approach is to encourage developers to prove their concepts at 1:4 scale in Galway Bay and efforts are under way to enhance this facility which, in turn, will help to lower the development costs and risks to technology developers. The creation of a commercial wave-energy development zone along our west coast would bring significant interest from around the world and would lead to much-needed foreign investment into Ireland thus accelerating the pace of development. This could be achieved through careful consideration and gearing of our scarce financial and human resources shared by Government, industry and researchers. Agreement and co-operation amongst all stakeholders would be required but the result would be direction and certainty, which is an essential requirement for commercial investment to take place. Until then, the relentless energy of the sea rolls on untamed and leaves many exciting opportunities and challenges for our engineers to conquer.